Researchers in Australia no longer have to spend time and money locating radio-tagged wildlife by traipsing over vast expanses of land searching for a signal.

After more than two years of development and testing, researchers at Australian National University built a modified drone equipped with a customized receiver and antenna that does the legwork for them. It provides real-time information on radio-tagged wildlife inhabiting terrain that is often difficult for humans to access.

The university’s Debbie Saunders originally had the idea and hoped to use it to track small migratory birds that – because of Australia’s variable climate – did not return to the same area every year. Saunders is a wildlife ecologist who conducted more than 150 test flights of the drone with her team, according to a press release.

The system was initially tested on common ground animals including small kangaroos at Canberra’s Mulligan Flats Sanctuary and was successful at picking up signals from miniature radio transmitters on the tagged animals weighing as little as 0.4 ounces. The drone’s test flights taught the team how best to approach animals.

“We don’t want to fly straight toward an animal because that will scare it. Instead, we launch the drone manually and fly up to 98-164 feet above the canopy,” Saunders told Gizmag.

This approach allows the drone to pick up the radio-tag signal and shows the scientists where on Google Maps the animal is. Some of the migratory birds now being tracked include a rare species, the endangered swift parrot.

Use of this customized drone is saving the researchers huge amounts of time and providing excellent data. Operators can put the drone up in two bursts of 20 minutes and do what normally would take more than half a day’s work without this technology.

The project has researchers excited about what they might learn about the world’s most reclusive species.

“There are species out there we don’t know much about because they live in such difficult to reach environments” Saunders told Gizmag, adding that the drone could “track basically anything we can put a radio tag on.”

It’s a promising new application of drone technology that seems ideal for use in wildlife conservation efforts.

Photo credit: Dreamstime